By Shereen Siewert

The Marathon County Jail in Wausau will officially eliminate the Huber program for a six-month trial period, shifting instead to an increase in the electronic monitoring program.

The approach is both a response to the COVID-19 pandemic and a potential way to save tax dollars on inmates housed in other facilities.

Wisconsin’s Huber law, commonly referred to as “work release,” allows county jail inmates to leave the jail to work, seek employment, attend school or medical treatment, conduct family child care or other specific purposes. Inmates granted Huber privileges are housed in a specific block of the jail.

Jail Administrator Sandra LaDu said Marathon County has been relying heavily on electronic monitoring for months.

“Quite frankly, since Covid hit last year, this has pretty much been the case – I would say since May 2020,” LaDu told Wausau Pilot & Review. “We have had one or maybe two Hubers exercising privileges at a time, in an effort to keep contamination of other inmates and staff at a minimum.  After seeing the number of persons who are being sentenced who are not [either] going to prison or eligible for electronic monitoring, it does not make sense for us to use a block of eight plus beds for those one or two people, requiring us to house more people out of county.”

Governments around the world are releasing record numbers of prisoners out of concern that the pandemic poses undue risks to inmates’ health, according to the BBC. Worldwide, there are about 25% to 30% more prisoners wearing electronic bracelets now than just a few months ago, according to Bloomberg Businessweek estimates. Criminal justice experts are eyeing the trend closely, openly wondering if this could indeed be a test run for a longer-term shift in sentencing.

Cherise Burdeen, an executive partner at the Pretrial Justice Institute, told Injustice Watch that Electronic monitoring has little effect on crime in general, and said most people who are currently on it are not a danger to public safety. The Institute advocates for less pretrial incarceration and less electronic monitoring.

“It’s sort of seen as a way to cover all your bases,” Burdeen said. “If something happens, [police] can go back and review the tapes to see if anyone who was on EM was in the area of a crime that was committed.”

But critics say that because surveillance is seen as more humane than jail, judges are putting more people on it than they ever would have locked up.

In Marathon County, there are some exceptions to the EMP program. People who are sentenced on domestic violence-related charges won’t be able to live with their victims. Instead, they’ll need to secure a suitable living environment before being granted a monitor. Further, people serving sentences shorter than seven days will be required to serve their time.

“I am certain there will be a number of questions, but please realize we have essentially been doing this since Summer 2020,” LaDu said, in a memo to attorneys and jail staff that she shared with Wausau Pilot & Review. “It is only now that we are making the trial official to determine why this is, or is not a good plan moving forward.”